Sunday we saw Jacoby Brissett, who used to be a Patriots quarterback, return from injury and lead the Colts to a win after taking back the reins from Brian Hoyer, who used to be a Patriots quarterback. Elsewhere, Jimmy Garoppolo, who used to be a Patriots quarterback, engineered a game-winning drive to squeak past the Cardinals, who are coached by Kliff Kingsbury, who used to be a Patriots quarterback. In Washington, offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell, who used to be a Patriots quarterback, saw his unit sputter out in a loss to the Jets. And finally, New England pulled out a win despite a lackluster performance from Tom Brady, who is currently the Patriots’ quarterback. He also, and you can’t tell me I’m wrong, used to be a Patriots quarterback.
In this century, thanks to Brady, the New England Patriots have had far less reason to draft a quarterback than almost any other NFL team.
Only the Saints, who dusted off their hands after neatly transferring power from Aaron Brooks to Drew Brees in 2006, have had to make fewer changes at quarterback than the Patriots. Even so, the Pats didn’t face any sort of long-term dilemma when Matt Cassel took over for the injured Brady in 2008, since they knew he was returning.
Deciding which quarterback to draft is one of the toughest and most important calls an NFL team has to make, so it’s sort of comical that Bill Belichick, the smartest man in football, hasn’t even had to think about it for nearly two decades.
And yet he does! He can’t help himself. It’s a particular talent of his that just can’t remain dormant. Let’s look at that chart again, this time highlighting the quarterbacks he’s chosen who have gone on to find success elsewhere in the NFL.
Garoppolo and Brissett are franchise quarterbacks who are chucking some very good football for playoff contenders. Cassel was a low-potential, hyper-conservative quarterback who I love unconditionally; despite his limitations he strung together a four-year run with the Chiefs and wasn’t terrible. Hoyer, a serviceable option who has started at least one game for six different teams, is the reason I had to use “chosen” instead of “drafted” above, as he actually went unselected in the 2009 draft only for Belichick to sign him off the street the following day.
Including the Patriots themselves, eight teams — exactly 25 percent of all teams in the NFL — have picked a Belichick-selected backup to be Their Guy for the plurality of a season. If we expand the definition to ex-Pats who have simply thrown a pass for another team, we’re talking about 13 franchises. That’s within spitting distance of half the teams in the NFL.
These names represent a pretty wide variation in quality, from the very impressive Garoppolo and Brissett to the unfortunate Ryan Mallett. But on balance, Belichick is very, very good at drafting quality quarterbacks without spending quality picks. To understand this properly, let’s look at some bullshit.
This is the most commonly-used iteration of the “Draft Pick Trade Value Chart”. It was devised by Jimmy Johnson as a means of assessing the relative value of a draft pick. For instance, the No. 1 overall pick is valued at 3,000 “points”, but only six picks later, the No. 7 pick is valued at just 1,500 points. I say it’s bullshit because it assigns a definite value to a draft pick, a thing that is wildly dependent on context, but I will acknowledge that as a very loose and general set of guideposts, it’s useful.
For our purposes, it’s especially useful as insight into how NFL teams value their picks, because they themselves tend to rely heavily on this chart. The early picks are, indeed, disproportionately valuable to them. Belichick doesn’t even think about using them on a quarterback.
Once he struck gold with Brady, he never had any incentive to, but it’s amazing to see what he’s done with a couple fistfuls of low-value draft picks. Unsurprisingly, the Patriots have spent far less draft-pick value on quarterbacks than the majority of NFL teams.
It’s hard not to notice that the bottom seven teams on this chart — the ones who have spent less draft capital on quarterbacks than anyone — all have quarterbacks who most teams would kill for. It’s a predictable and cruel outcome. Teams who strike gold once get to settle their quarterback situation for the next decade-plus, and teams who bet big on a quarterback and miss the mark just have to go back to the well and try again.
But just because it’s predictable doesn’t mean it’s not really funny.
With all their numbers combined, Belichick-drafted quarterbacks hold a cumulative passer rating of 92.3. This eclipses 26 teams, most of which have spent at least three times as much draft capital on passers.
What this 92.3 passer rating doesn’t reflect is longevity. Bored by the endless success of Brady, Belichick continued to flip low-value picks (or, in Hoyer’s case, a day-after-draft signing) into quarterbacks with long, successful careers. Quarterbacks he didn’t even need.
Even ignoring Brady, those four represent a very strong track record, particularly since all four were had at a bargain. Let’s look again at the “combined passer rating” chart, but this time, plot New England as though Brady never existed.
Seemingly for the hell of it, and with a tiny amount of draft firepower, Belichick assembled an army of quarterbacks he didn’t need that surpasses those drafted by the Vikings, Ravens, Bills, Bears, Panthers, Bucs, Texans, Jaguars, Lions, Cardinals, Titans, Jets and Browns. Thirteen teams. Nearly half the NFL.
Again, passer rating accounts for quality, not quantity, so let’s look at the latter. It’s borderline crude to assess quarterbacks solely by passing yards, but it does at least represent on-the-field production. And of those 13 teams above, Belichick’s gaggle of elevated backups has out-gained eight of them in terms of yardage.
This is embarrassing.
This comes with an important caveat: many of these teams spent lots of draft capital on decent-to-great quarterbacks who still have a ton of football left to play (Marcus Mariota, Deshaun Watson, Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen). But remember that the Patriots’ figure here is probably rising even faster, as both Garoppolo and Brissett are in the same boat.
Since those numbers are adding up in the service of other teams, how much has Belichick actually benefited from this wildly impressive draftsmanship?
Relatively speaking, not much. He was able to flip all these picks for slightly better draft position, and in the meantime, these quarterbacks contributed a 14-6 record. While certainly significant, it’s a pittance compared to the long-term value Garoppolo and Brissett bring to the 49ers and Colts all by themselves.
Belichick is magnificent at a skill he doesn’t need. And while exercising this skill for dimes on the dollar is still good football strategy, I’ve chosen to invent a narrative of my own: Belichick just loves solving football problems.
There’s a scene in Belichick’s episode of A Football Life in which he’s sitting in his office, slouched in an office chair, mumbling with Brady over how the hell to play against the Ravens’ Ed Reed. These couple of frames manage to capture his personal Valhalla.
Weird stack of home audio hardware that probably includes a turntable and/or Minidisc player. Jarringly mismatched furniture. Cherry-wood desk from 1994. Nothing on the walls. Framed artwork perilously set on top of the couch on the far wall. Shirt sleeves that look like they were hacked off with a pocket knife.